Good conduct Bill for MPs?
Writer: Lee Hwok Aun
Published: Fri, 20 Apr 2012
Let’s say we table a Members of Parliament Proper Conduct Bill, and inserted sub-section 15(4) of the current Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) Amendment Bill. Why not? Both are institutions meant to pursue truth and generate debate.
If the BN government deems it necessary to regulate those occupying university halls, why not do the same for those sitting in parliamentary chambers?
Under such a law, if Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin were to be asked his opinion on abolishing the PTPTN, the national higher education loan administrator, his proper response would be: “I cannot comment. I am trained only as a lawyer, whereas this question involves economics, sociology and all kinds of issues outside my area.”
Until a BN-style MP Proper Conduct Bill is passed, Khaled is free to publicly comment on matters beyond his academic qualifications.
Embracing this freedom, he remarked on March 28 that closing down the PTPTN would not be viable.
Let me say that, at face value, I agree with the minister. I think eliminating the PTPTN is too drastic, though we must look into the causes of its sickly low loan recovery rate and be open to new ideas, such as requiring institutions receiving PTPTN disbursements to provide part-time employment for students, and vigilantly monitoring institutions that over-enrol PTPTN loan recipients.
Before cutting public funding for higher education, the government must justify its current expenditure and demonstrate results in combating fraud and wastage.
But I would like to see Section 15 of the UUCA ripped to shreds and thrown to a bonfire.
The well-known sub-section 15(2) has been hammered for decades for prohibiting student membership in political parties.
Can they, under the UUCA amendments? A small yes, and a big but. Yes, students can be members. But they cannot participate in political party activities on campus, and any student who is a party officer cannot hold “any post in any society, organisation, body or group of students.”
The ferocity and paranoia of these restrictions are quite breathtaking. Not to mention another prohibition: students cannot be members of non-political party organisations that “the Board determines to be unsuitable to the interests and well-being of the students or the University”.
Section 15 also appears word for word as Section 47 in a concurrent Private Higher Educational Institutions (Amendment) Bill, so these tentacles of mind policing stretch across all higher education institutions.
Such laws are unwarranted; any claims of education reform are hollow and disingenuous. We are witnessing more of a re-caging exercise.
Participation in political parties, societies and organisations is a fundamental, constitutional right.
If a university has a problem with students’ political activities, deal with them first and foremost as persons and citizens. There is no need for separate legislation governing student political engagement.
But enough about that, we are familiar with the debate. And sub-section 15(2) is, emphatically, not the most corrosive part of the amendments being tabled.
Sub-section 15(4), mostly retained from UUCA amendments of 2009, bares the government’s perfectly half-hearted attitude and boxed-in mentality toward academic freedom.
Yes, students are no longer explicitly prohibited from expressing an opinion about a political party.
But not for non-political organisations, unless approved by the authorities. They can make statements, but only on “an academic matter which relates to a subject on which he is engaged in study or research”.
The prevailing education philosophy, which presides over the higher education amendments, views education institutions as production lines, except now the government brands the desired output as narrow specialists, not mere degree holders.
Hence, students can hold an opinion publicly, but only in their area of specialisation. To venture beyond invites official scrutiny and possible punishment.
Even soft skills have been reduced to a hard science, such as compulsory courses in doing presentations to address the problem of deficient communication skills.
Of course, we must cultivate better communication, but the roots of poor skills in this department run much deeper than the ability to present a slideshow. I am convinced students are impeded more by poor thinking skills, low confidence in the value of their ideas, and fear of saying things that may be out of line with received knowledge.
From my experience, university students can put on quite an impressive powerpoint show.
Obviously, they are trained, and this has its merits. But when asked questions after the scripted portion, they are stumped, unable to think on their own feet.
They remain uncomfortable outside their zone of specialisation.
Prodding and guiding them toward becoming the critical, innovative thinkers we keep saying we need requires a climate of true academic freedom. The tabled UUCA amendments fail.
BN MPs enjoy freedom to comment on all sorts of matters, regardless of formal training and in implicit recognition of the fact that we can apply our minds broadly. But for students, they still prefer to lock them up.
Just make the cage roomier.